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A Shul for All Seasons in Fallsburg

Yisroel Besser

The vacationers have gone home and are already settling into their normal routine. But for Harold Gold, the Catskills town of Fallsburg has been home all year long — for close to nine decades. While generations have come and gone, Gold is one of the remaining heroes of a bygone era in the Borsht Belt, holding down the shul… and the memories.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Harold’s history is bound up with the town square. A white building with green trim over on Main Street is the place where Harold was born, on the top floor. At the entrance to the police station is a small monument that commemorates the memory of his recently deceased brother.

He looks over to the grassy ridge where the train tracks ran, and he informs me that the town was originally called Fallsburg Station, after the railroad station located in the town center. “This was the main depot for the whole county. Everyone got off here.”

Including Harold Gold, who back in the early 1940s stepped off the train as a returning soldier. “Was it possible to be a feeling Jew in 1942 and not enlist in the army?” he asks.

Our tour continues. A block away is the cemetery where his parents, brothers, and wife rest, along with a century of Fallsburg’s Jewish citizens.

Back on Main Street we take a look at some of the stores. The owners are people whose lives have been bound up with the life of the Jewish community for decades, such as the Levine family of Fallsburg Lumber. Over at Smith’s Shoes, the family has always insisted that the rabbi accept his shoes for free.

But the most dominant feature of the Fallsburg skyline is the Magen Dovid peeking out from between the wooden buildings, marking the site of the Fallsburg shul. The shul is also the setting for our story, the story of Harold Gold, since this story of a Jew from Fallsburg is the story of the shul.

We sit down to chat in the welcoming home of the shul’s present rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Barros. The rabbi, a pleasant and energetic young man, suggests: “Harold, tell him the story of your father. Then he’ll understand what you’re all about.”

Harold clears his throat. “My father was from Vilna, Lithuania,” he begins. “His brothers went to the yeshivah in Volozhin.”

He looks at me seriously, “That was like the ‘Columbia’ of yeshivos, you understand. But my father wanted a life different from the hunger and persecution of Europe. He traveled to America, where he settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was a resourceful fellow. One day he saw an ad in the Forverts about a job opening for a plumber in South Fallsburg — twelve dollars a week plus room and board. He came down here and met his new employer, Mr. Willie Mankus.”

In time, the new plumber married his employer’s sister-in-law, so Willie Mankus became Uncle Willie. Mr. Mankus, it seems, was a unique figure in the Jewish community. “Uncle Willie was tall and strong, and he’d been a soldier in England. If anyone bothered the Jews around these parts, he was there. No one messed with Uncle Willie.

“My father established himself as a local plumber. He would order his supplies from Sultzer Brothers, on the Lower East Side. He had a line of credit with them. But then World War I broke out. My father joined the US Army and was dispatched to Europe with the 101st regiment. He was the last soldier from Sullivan County to serve in France.

“The army paid thirty dollars a month, but you got thirty-three dollars a month if you went overseas. My father owed Sultzer Brothers thirty-five dollars, and so he took his entire first month’s salary and mailed it to them from France. He wrote that he wanted them to have the money in case he would be killed in battle. He didn’t want to owe any money.”

After the war ended in 1918, Harold’s father returned to Fallsburg. The post–World War I era was the beginning of a boom time for the Catskills. The first of the big resorts were being built — the Concorde and Grossingers would come later — and Harold was offered work doing all the plumbing. It was a big job that involved laying lots of pipe. Since he didn’t have the money or supplies, he went to the Lower East Side to ask if the Sultzer Brothers would give him the supplies on credit.

“When my father said his name, there was complete silence. The cashier called him into the office. There, framed on the wall, was the check he had sent from Europe! They advanced him thousands of dollars worth of plumbing material. With that he prospered, becoming the main plumbing contractor in the vicinity.

“I always tell my grandchildren this story to teach them that if you do the right thing — if you do what the Torah says — you’ll never lose.”

 

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